For the young Runnin’ Utes, defense comes and goes, while scoring is a struggle

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Both Gach (11) takes the ball to the hoop, as Tulsa Golden Hurricane forward Jeriah Horne (41) defends, in basketball action between the Utah Utes and Tulsa Golden Hurricane at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.

The first clue that scoring would not be as easy as expected for Utah came during the second half of the season opener when the Utes went nine minutes without a basket.

Or maybe it was two days earlier, when sophomore forward Donnie Tillman reflected on six weeks of preseason practice. The season “can go either way,” he said. “It can be a great year or it can be a really bad year.”

So far? Somewhere in between, going into Saturday’s game vs. BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Utes (4-3) have absorbed only one really disconcerting defeat, a neutral-site loss to Hawaii. But they haven’t beaten an opponent ranked higher than No. 129 in the kenpom.com efficiency ratings and have fallen from No. 71 in the preseason to No. 117. That ranking makes them 10th among Pac-12 teams, with December games to come against the likes of BYU, Kentucky and Nevada before conference play starts Jan. 3.

Defense is a bigger issue than offense, according to kenpom.com. The Utes are No. 59 in adjusted offense and No. 179 in defense.

Even so, coach Larry Krystkowiak willingly addressed his offense at length — “It’s the same thing I’m wondering about,” he said — without mentioning defense at all during his weekly news conference Tuesday.

Krystkowiak is making efforts to keep his team’s youth from becoming the storyline all season, but he understood the defense would take time to develop. He figured scoring would be less of a problem initially, as the Utes showed by producing 25 points in the first eight minutes of the opener, a 75-61 win over Maine. They weren’t going to shoot 90 percent all season, of course, but offense has become more of a struggle for this team than anyone pictured.

So Krystkowiak and his staff are devoting considerable effort and practice time to offense lately. They tried to simplify things with a less-structured approach last weekend, with mildly encouraging results. The Utes doubled their output in the second half of a 69-64 defeat of Maine, scoring 46 points.

The work continues this week. Utah still needs to improve on properly executing plays, passing and making shots. “We haven’t been stellar in any of those categories,” Krystkowiak said. Shot selection could improve, and he said, and so could the end result.

Speaking as if he were addressing the team, Krystkowiak said, “When we do call a play, we're going to execute it. We're going to share the ball. And when things do go as planned and you get the shot you're looking for … we need to make it.”

The Utes recently lost guard Vante Hendrix, one of their most dynamic athletes, when he left the team after a sideline exchange with Krystkowiak that apparently was the visible evidence of built-up issues. Hendrix had averaged 7.8 points, playing 17.8 minutes in the first four games.

Krystkowiak had suggested last week that Hendrix's departure would create a bigger role for junior college transfer Charles Jones Jr., especially with more offensive freedom. But Jones played only three minutes against Tulsa, missing the two shots he took.

Senior guard Sedrick Barefield scored all of his 15 points in the second half of that game, as the Utes shot 50 percent from the field — improving from 34 percent in the first half. Krystkowiak hopes that’s a good sign. “I think we’re going to become more efficient,” he said. “It’s certainly an emphasis in our practices.”